Oysters nearing maturity are seen in cage on Saint Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County last February. Wild oyster stocks are in dwindling supply and there are doubts Maryland is doing enough to protect them.
Oysters nearing maturity are seen in cage on Saint Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County last February. Wild oyster stocks are in dwindling supply and there are doubts Maryland is doing enough to protect them. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

Oysters don’t vote. This is widely known. The fact that their average lifespan is six years and voters must be at least 18 may have something to do with that. More likely is that they are not human beings, and state election laws can be touchy on that subject. Whatever the cause, this inability to speak up for themselves may help explain why the Maryland Department of Natural Resources appears determined to ignore their plight — to the point where the very existence of one of Maryland’s most revered seafood delicacies is being put at risk.

On Monday, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources released its rules for the upcoming oyster fishing season. To put it on the half-shell, they are a total cave to watermen and seafood processors who once again seem determined to extract the last oyster from the Chesapeake Bay. For years, scientists have pleaded with DNR to follow the best science when it comes to fisheries management, but what’s happening with oysters smacks of politics and favoritism.

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Just last week, the state agency unveiled plans for a 30 percent reduction in the oyster catch this season. The rules could have been stricter still (we have argued for an outright moratorium) but at least it was a reasonable approach. The revised regulations released just days later, however, are a different story. DNR claims they will reduce the harvest by 26%, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s fishery scientist has concluded — using the DNR’s own statistics — that the impact will be marginal, perhaps a few percentage points. This status quo approach ought to be regarded as unacceptable given that oyster stocks have suffered a 50% decline since 1999. Rainy weather last year and this past summer has been a disaster for both oyster reproduction and growth as salinity levels have dropped in the bay and its tributaries.

Any other species and there would be a check and balance. The proposal would have to be approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission perhaps or at least the Chesapeake Bay Commission, but oysters are governed strictly by the states, a product of their immobile nature in adulthood. And given recent changes to the regulatory framework, even the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review (AELR) has no oversight. At the very least, the lax regulations aren’t in keeping with lawmakers’ recent efforts to move Maryland toward a steady, science-based approach to resource management.

This isn’t the first time the Hogan administration has failed to address over-harvesting of oysters. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that would have prevented watermen from taking oysters from protected “sanctuaries." The legislature subsequently overrode that veto (an especially poignant moment in the final days of the last session given the measure was sponsored by the late House Speaker Michael Busch). But the governor also vetoed legislation to require DNR to seek a consensus on oyster regulations with its statewide advisory committee and other stakeholders. Had that law been in effect, it is doubtful the DNR regulations would have been judged acceptable.

A recent rollback of regulations has raised questions about whether the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is willing to protect the Chesapeake Bay's declining oyster population.
A recent rollback of regulations has raised questions about whether the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is willing to protect the Chesapeake Bay's declining oyster population. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

As a result, when the season opens Oct. 1, watermen will face some marginal restrictions — no commercial harvest on Wednesdays, for example — but nothing that would seriously hinder their efforts. Some will rejoice at that. But in the long-term, their livelihoods have been put in danger. Should oysters continue on their current downward trajectory (they haven’t had a good reproductive year since 2012), Maryland’s wild oyster harvest may soon become more a memory than a reality. And given the important role oysters play in the ecosystem as filter feeders that can reduce excess nutrients in the water, the consequences would prove serious and long-lasting. A Chesapeake Bay with oysters is inherently cleaner and more hospitable to marine life than one without them.

And while oysters will never have the ability to vote or lobby for themselves, Maryland’s human residents do, and we would urge them to tell their legislators that the state needs to do more to protect this vital species. The sooner the General Assembly acts to put the state on a more sustainable path, the sooner we can all return to enjoying wild oysters, whether served as fritters, stew, stuffing or simply raw on the half-shell, without feeling we are foolishly squandering a precious resource.

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